Sometimes the best part of a trip is planning. It’s nice to get excited about places so you can gain a real buzz before you visit and experience them for yourself. Hanoi is filled with so many sights, sounds and smells mixed with a rich history of war, invasion and communist influence- It’s a book with so many pages worth exploring. We chose Hanoi as it was the departure destination for a four day motorbike tour and we were seeking adventure. If you’re planning your next trip but not sure where to go- have a read of my Top 10 Things To Do in Hanoi and hopefully you won’t need any further convincing.
(Note: These aren’t in any order of preference)
Hanoi Old Quarter Bicycle Tour
There is so much movement and life in Hanoi it can be slightly overwhelming, read my ‘Hanoi at a glance’ if you want to find out more. From busy market stalls to the sound of horns beeping, and the occasional local screaming match from competing businesses- relaxation sometimes feels far away . But, it’s not hard to swap that city lifestyle and motorbike for a relaxing rural adventure and bicycle instead. There are quite a few tour operators running the ‘Old Quarter Bicycle Tour‘ so it’s probably best to have a walk around town and find the best deal when you’re out there- or check with your hostel- a lot of them provide tours at discounted rates for guests. Alternatively, if you’re feeling really adventurous you could just rent a bike cheaply for the day, get a map, and explore without a tour guide.
This 4 hour tour will have you exploring the hidden gems of Hanoi where you’ll cross over the Long Bien bridge and enter the banana forest. This is where you can experience the locals in their daily working life on the banana plantation. You’ll get the chance to take in all sights, sounds and smells of Hanoi on this tour and really get to see how the city functions.
If you have no budget: £50-£55 per person (I personally feel this is far too expensive unless they cover lunch, but then lunch itself in Hanoi is cheap, around £5- £8 for a restaurant meal)
Medium budget: £29 per person
Skint: £2- We stayed at the Flipside hostel and they provided this tour completely free- all you had to do was rent the bike for a day which was $2.
There are other ways to go on this tour for free using Hanoi Free Tours. This is a not-for-profit organisation where local students who want to meet new people and improve their English language skills will take you on the tour. We only discovered this after they approached us in the middle of the street as they wanted to improve on their conversation skills.
Visit the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
This is probably one of the most visited sites in Hanoi so I feel obliged to include it in my Top 10 Things To Do list. Located in Ba Dinh Square it is the final resting place of Vietnam’s world famous leader; Ho Chi Minh; his body in preserved in a glass case. If the name Ho Chi Minh rings a bell it’s because the former south Vietnamese city, known as Saigon, was officially renamed Ho Chi Minh City after the revolutionary leader took over in 1975.
This is a unique part of Vietnamese history and definitely made me want to read up on the communist take over and cold war in Vietnam.
But please remember to dress appropriately as you might not be allowed in if your shoulders and knees are on show.
Attend a cooking class
Walking around seeing building after building can be exhausting so it’s nice to try something a little different like a cooking class, especially as the food in Vietnam is amazing. There aren’t many Vietnamese restaurants where I live so I made sure to eat as little Western food as possible while in Hanoi. A cooking class doesn’t just provide you with a recipe to follow, but from sourcing the produce from local market stalls the class helps you to understand the ingredients of Vietnamese food and opens up your senses to all their flavours. And what’s better than being able to take some recipes home to showcase your new skills to loved-ones. Prices range from £25- £60+ depending if your course is a full day, half day or just an hour or so.
Eat Pho on the streets for breakfast
This concept took me a while to understand- Why are they eating noodle soup for breakfast? Why are they eating outside on the pavements? And why on earth are they sat on toddler sized stools?
It pays to be an early riser, especially in Hanoi if you want to experience its calmer and less humid hours. Just after sunrise to around 10am each morning every street corner will be filled with locals crouched down on small stools and a tiny table devouring pho. Pho; the chicken or beef based broth with noodles and herbs, is the national dish of Vietnam and it surprisingly became a favourite dish of mine too, not to mention that my chop stick skills improved significantly. I’m not too sure of the history of this dish, but I tried asking for it in many restaurants as an evening meal only to be told it was served as a breakfast dish. They serve it for breakfast as it’s apparently meant to awaken your senses and prepare you for the day. As for the miniature stools? I can’t really answer that, but I’d take a guess in that the smaller the chairs= space for more chairs= more customers eating pho!
Hoa Lo Prison Museum
I love a bit of history and after studying the cold war a few years back I had some basic background knowledge of the struggles and divide Vietnam has been through in more recent times. It made perfect sense for me to visit this ex-prison now museum, and if you want a thought-provoking yet sombre feeling day then you should definitely visit Hoa Lo Prison for an hour or so. The prison held both American and Vietnamese prisoners, but the exhibition today mainly focuses on the sufferings of Vietnamese revolutionaries who were locked up and often executed at the prison when the French were the masters of Vietnam in the 20th century.
Get Cultural at the Hanoi Opera House
This is such a aesthetically charming building and worth the visit just to snap up some pictures of the outside. Unfortunately being on a budget meant we didn’t have the opportunity to enjoy a performance, and for some reason I can’t imagine us fitting in very well with the opera scene, I don’t think elephant print floaty trousers or a sundress quite fit the bill. But, if you are lucky enough to be in Hanoi with money to spare and want to get cultural then the Hanoi Opera House is for you; featuring a range of events from local Vietnamese opera, traditional folk music, ballets and international concerts I’m sure you’d be entertained.
Temple of Literature
After visiting Thailand I thought I’d be all templed out, but there’s something about the traditional Vietnamese architecture that makes you feel instantly at peace. The Temple of Literature is a place of study rather than a religious landmark and was originally built in 1070 as a university dedicated to Confucius. I think the stunning gardens and courtyards speak for themselves.
Watch the Water Puppet Theatre Show
Come all the way to Vietnam for a puppet show you ask? This isn’t just a puppet show, the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre is more of a cultural performance and symbol of art, and this traditional performing art has been around for more than a thousand years. The performance captivates the daily life of Vietnamese farmers as well as some history and legends of fire breathing dragons. It’s definitely worth a watch if you’re in that area as it’s only between £3-£5 so you can’t go wrong. The Hoan Kiem Lake plays a perfect backdrop to the theatre and I’d recommend a sunset walk around the lake and bridges before watching the 6.30pm show.
Shop at Xuan Market and night markets
We discovered that Hanoi has a very convenient layout in terms of shop placement. Found a handbag you love but can’t remember where? Well no need to worry as there is an entire street dedicated to handbags. In fact, it appeared as though the streets were solely dedicated to specific items, we stumbled across shoe street, toiletry street, bag street, lamp street and even creepy stuffed animal street. I can’t tell you the real name of these streets and I prefer to remember them by theme. I guess shopping in this format works well if you really want to compare all your choices and get the best deal.
If you fancy a night out to explore but not feeling the next morning hangover, a great way to enjoy the evening is by attending a night market in Hanoi. These are held every Friday, Saturday and Sunday from 7pm on Hang Dao Street running through to the Old Quarter and up to Dong Xuan Market. What’s nice about this is that the roads are completely blocked off from cars and motorbikes so you don’t need to worry about crossing the roads- but they are very busy so expect to walk at snail pace- not too ideal if you get angry at slow walkers.
The night markets are the perfect opportunity to try some traditional street food; we skipped dinner as we wanted to do a street food bar crawl if you like. And while some of the items on sale are mass produced tat there are also some real treasures; I bought a lovely hand crafted bookmark made from folded paper.
And if you have no money left but want to experience some good Vietnamese culture and busking then look no further. The Night Market showcases cultural performances and street busking, some locals are dressed in traditional costumes play traditional Vietnamese music as well as classical tunes. We enjoyed a live band and salsa dancing.
Snake Village Dinner tour
Did I mention Hanoi caters for all? Venture about 40 minutes out of the hustle and bustle of the city centre and head to a small village for an evening filled of well, snakes! I myself didn’t personally do this while in Hanoi but the hostel we stayed in did a Snake Village Dinner tour for around £15- $20. Described as lighthearted but not for the fainthearted you have the opportunity to take part in a Vietnamese ritual of where they take the still beating heart of the snake and place it in a shot of blood and rice wine. I’m not too sure how I feel about that. But, it’s on this list as everyone at our hostel was raving about it. The pre drinks are followed by a 5 course dinner of snakes, of course, all accompanied with unlimited snake wine. Whatever floats your boat.
These are just a few things to do in Hanoi but it’s worth exploring the city for yourself and making your own adventure. Let me know if you have any suggestions on things to do in Hanoi as it’s a city I’d love to return to.